In Malaysia it is night-time and Ho Sok Fong is sitting down to write a ‘Notes on Craft’ essay about her short story collection, Lake Like a Mirror. In Chile it is morning and I am sitting down to write about translating Sok Fong’s stories. She tells me that in her piece she might write about ambiguity and my immediate thought is that in this case I might write about amphibians. When I was younger, I used to mix the two words up – ambiguous, amphibious: such similar forms, all those syllables – and even now that I know better, I think of them as related: both make me think of a murky colour, some sort of greenish-grey; watery.
I recently learned that Taylor Swift superfans on YouTube theorise about clues in her music videos. The sidebar suggested that I watch a video promising to ‘decode all the Easter eggs!!!’ in one of her singles, and not only did I watch it but I scrolled through most of the three hundred and forty-five comments below. One hot topic was the woman in the orange dungarees on the orange exercise bike, who appears for a split second early on and seems to be biting oranges through their skin, then throwing them on the ground. The music video is saturated with LGBTQ references, and commenters had a lot of theories about this scene. The woman was a nod to Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit; no, more likely to protesters throwing orange rinds during the Stonewall riots; no, no, definitely to Anita Bryant, anti-gay-rights campaigner and noted orange juice saleswoman. Taylor Swift did not invent the concept of allusion, but lately when I think about translating, I think of those Taylor Swift superfans earnestly trading theories.
Sok Fong wrote a story called ‘Wind Through the Pineapple Leaves, Through the Frangipani’, and it is a fractured, ambiguous story. In it, an amphibious person rises through the sand inside the head of Aminah. Aminah is inside an Islamic rehabilitation centre. Aminah does not want to be Muslim but she has to be because she is Malay. The narration is first person; the narrator receives a letter addressed to ‘Mei Lan’; the narrator must be Chinese. But the narrator and Aminah share thoughts, share visions of the amphibious person, feel the same sand shifting inside their head. The narrator and Aminah are the same person, a mixed-race Malay-Chinese person, and the coherence of the narrative seems to depend on how aligned Mei Lan-Aminah feels with one or the other side of her identity. Meanwhile the amphibious person leaps about, hallucinatory, taunting Mei Lan-Aminah with notions of jumping over the fence to some kind of freedom.
The first time I read the story I did not understand it on a rational level, but I felt it. I felt as if there was a glass brimming with water balanced precariously on my diaphragm. I worried about breathing too deeply, in case the whole thing toppled over and I was left with nothing at all to work with. I comforted myself by thinking, ‘Sok Fong has already written it, I just have to copy it down in English.’ This is a fallacy, obviously. It is not craft; it is self-delusion in order to get the process started.
Sok Fong’s stories are submerged; words alert us to their presence, but the stories exist beneath the surface. Where are the clues? How do I dredge them up and inspect them and then put them back again to be discovered in a new context? The reader doesn’t need to have answers, but they do need to have theories: the sand in Mei Lan-Aminah’s head represents an hourglass, because she is imprisoned and all she has is time; no, more likely the sand is depression, an inescapable heaviness, and she feels buried; no, no, definitely the sand represents land taking over, but she doesn’t want it, she wants water.
I emailed back and forth with Sok Fong. I showed her drafts. I visited her in Malaysia. We went to her local pasar and every time I didn’t recognise a piece of fruit, she bought it for me. I offered her my superfan theories and she gave me more clues. Frangipani are often seen in Muslim graveyards; pineapples are left on Chinese graves after the Qing Ming tomb-sweeping festival. She didn’t write this but perhaps we could slide it into the English when pineapples came up, just a nudge – we could write that the wind trembles ‘the Qing Ming pineapple leaves’, not just the pineapple leaves, for a reader who wouldn’t otherwise make the connection.
The reader deserves a fair chance, to feel that the story is greenish-grey but not so entirely underwater that they should just give up.
The amphibious person in the story has a name and I thought the name could be a clue. In Chinese ‘amphibious’ is composed of the character for ‘both’ and the character for ‘live/dwell/perch/stay’. Identical to the Greek roots of the English word, though arguably starker for a Chinese reader. The amphibious person’s name is the second character; they are called ‘live/dwell/perch/stay’. The same word crops up in the story as a verb, tying Aminah and Mei Lan together: ‘Aminah, I call. She [lives/dwells/perches/stays] in me, still and quiet.’ The amphibious person represents a way of living, a dualism; they are Mei Lan-Aminah’s vision of what it would mean to compromise, to accept that she will have to be Aminah in the light, and Mei Lan in the dark.
‘You’ll have to be clever about it,’ the amphibious person says. ‘You won’t be completely free, but you might be a little bit.’
What to call this amphibious person in English? A direct translation seemed ridiculous. The name in Chinese is unusual, but it is not ‘Perch’. I considered ‘Bios’, which sounded grand and god-like; I considered ‘Am’, which was distracting. In my drafts I put ‘Qi’ as a placeholder, the pinyin transliteration of the character, and sometimes I thought it might work like that; we use ‘qi’ in English nowadays, it wins lots of points in Scrabble. Although derived from a different Chinese character, it means something like ‘life force’ and that isn’t too far off. But it didn’t provide me with a verb. It didn’t have a clear link to ‘amphibian’. I spent a lot of time reading online thesaurus entries for even vaguely connected words and watching YouTube clips in case footage of real amphibians inspired me. I remembered the English word ‘abide’ and checked that it meant what I thought it meant. Archaically, yes: live, dwell. Also: ‘accept or act in accordance with’ and ‘(of a feeling or memory) continue without fading or being lost’.
‘Aminah, I call. She abides in me, still and quiet.’
Amphibious, ambiguous, abide, Bi. I called the amphibious person ‘Bi’, hoping readers would hear it as it is in ‘amphibious’, as it would be pronounced in Chinese, rather than as in abide, because the latter seems a little on the nose.
‘Who made Bi like this?’ asks the narrator. ‘This is the question, hidden like frogspawn in the sand of the hourglass. We did, is the answer. Aminah and I. And the understanding undoes us, what to do, what to do [. . .] Aminah and I prefer to pretend that Bi fell from the sky. Fell like rain from on high. Imagine how far Bi must have come.’
In Malaysia by now Sok Fong is surely asleep. In Chile the early afternoon sun through my window is blinding.
Photograph © Phillip Taylor